Dayton painter has a Magic touch

Chris Rahn works on a personal piece in his Dayton studio.

Chris Rahn works on a personal piece in his Dayton studio. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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DAYTON — His artwork has been viewed by millions of people all over the world, but Dayton painter Chris Rahn says most people have never heard of him.

“Among this super-narrow percentage of the population, I’m like super-famous. And no one else knows who I am,” he laughed.

Rahn is the lucky adult who actually got to do his childhood dream job.

He spends his days painting wizards, hydras, elves and other fantasy creatures for book covers, board games and the occasional private collector.

But his best-known client is Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game with more than 12 million players worldwide.

Born in San Francisco, Rahn moved to Dayton with his mother when he was in elementary school, after his parents divorced. A self-described “nerd about mythology and monsters,” he grew up watching Ninja Turtles and reading comics, which is where he got the idea of drawing mythological scenes for a living.

“It’s kind of a weirdly linear experience. I’m basically doing what I was doing when I was 7,” he said.

Rahn left Dayton after high school to go to the San Francisco Academy of Art, where some of his professors showed his portfolio to an agency in New York. That led to his first assignment in 2007 from Magic, which is produced by Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast.

“I guess I passed,” Rahn said, who has since illustrated about 100 Magic cards.

Most fantasy illustrators work digitally these days, but Rahn still paints with oils on canvas. Because his clients commission his work for digital reproduction rights, he’s able to sell original paintings to collectors, an enterprise that makes up about half his income.

After graduating, Rahn lived in San Francisco and then Portland before moving back to Dayton so he and his wife Beth could be closer to their families. When he graduated high school, he said he was set on living in a big city but, 10 years later, he’s happier back in a small town.

“Doing what I do, it’s really hard to maintain the level of focus that I need when there’s so much going on,” he said.

Not many people in Dayton are avid Magic players, but Rahn’s work takes him to Magic conferences all over the world, including ventures to Italy and Japan in 2010, and an Australia trip at the end of February. There, he will meet fans who recognize his work and sometimes his name, if not necessarily his face, and get to spend time with other Magic artists who have become friends.

Fantasy illustration is a small field — Rahn estimates about 150 artists do work for Magic at any one time — but it’s also one of the last places illustrators still thrive.

Before the rise of digital photography, illustrations appeared all over magazines and other publications, but photos can’t capture dragons, orcs and other fantastical creatures. Plus, many fantasy stories are set in medieval times where people often prefer the aesthetic of an illustration.

“It’s kind of like the last bastion of illustration,” said Rahn.

Right now, Rahn is working on several scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series for Fantasy Flight Games. He recently finished a painting showing the hobbit Pippin cowering in fear after Gandalf catches him throwing rocks down a well in the Mines of Moria.

Though he does plenty of work that isn’t for Magic, Rahn said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the game, which he used to play when he was younger.

“Magic was probably one of the factors that got me thinking about fantasy art, so it’s come full circle,” he said.

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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